As February is being taken over by romantic scents, I thought I’d write about flowers- afterall it is the season to give them to loved ones. However, I’m not talking about roses even though I do love receiving them and even though they do smell lovely, I shall be discussing white flowers instead. I started writing this whilst writing a review for Narcotic Venus by Nasomatto, as that is one seriously romantic white floral composition, so here goes…

 

‘White floral’ as a category can mean a host of very different fragrances,  but route through your garden, and you won’t find a sub-group quite as compelling or enchanting as white flowers. Though small and often fragile in demeanour, they are the reigning divas of the floral kingdom, with deeply romantic scents. They can be sweet, innocent, playful, or voluptuous, sensual and overly dramatic.

For anyone unfamiliar with what I’m referring to, I want you to imagine small bush flowers, like Jasmine, Gardenia and Tuberose, Frangipani, Ylang-Ylang, Orange blossoms, Chestnut blossoms, Lily-of-the-Valley. The duality of these flowers mean that they possess every quality needed to symbolise human life: fertility, sexuality, women, men, sweat and death.  Their scent, largely dependent on their molecular makeup, is all they need to overshadow their competitors for the attention of insects to be pollinated. Given their tiny size, they have oversized, overzealous personalities, and constantly demand our attention. Speaking through their scent, they signal to their competitors flowers (who over centuries have developed artful patterns, colours and shapes) to “bounce” come nightfall, because it is only at night that they take full control of their aromas. Like sirens, they sing their sweet scent for all to smell. A simple question would be to ask: how have they got so much power given their tiny size? Like all good beauty products, by nature of course, and genetically they’re empowered by two molecules, lactones and indoles, that can make their aroma either as innocent or sensual as they please.

Jasmine, Gardenia, Tiare, Frangipani (pulmeria) and Tuberose follow traditional ‘white floral’ characteristics by way of their creamy butter scents. This is down to the presence of lactones, which are reminiscent of fat, coconut (Gamma-nonalactone or Aldehyde C18), hay and peach (Gamma-undecalactone or Aldehyde C14).  Tuberose has the highest concentration of lactones of any white flower, and for that reason alone is the reputed go-to-flower used to vamp up the sensuality of any in-need floral composition. More than just that, Tuberose is deeply physical- it’s a body being embraced, greedy, curvaceous and the biggest femme-fatal you might ever smell.  With or without meaning to, it has the effortless ability to overpower its less vamped neighbours with crushing devastation. For years I had such an aversion to tuberose as it was all I could smell from what were supposed to be ‘gardenia’ fragrances. Little did I know that to extract the oil of gardenias is in fact a very arduous and expensive process, so more often than not synthetic versions are used, or a combination of tuberose-jasmine-orange blossoms are used. So just like that, the power of tuberose is everywhere. Unapologetically flirtatious, tuberose is a known aphrodisiac and in some cultures young girls are warned off wearing them.

Though tuberose is excessively greedy, the one flower most reminiscent to human skin, and therefore just as alluring, is my personal favourite, jasmine.

Jasmine flowers are part of the Oleaceae family, which also claims the Olive tree & Osmanthus; and as such they have the highest content of fatty acid esters of all the white flowers. Though these molecules don’t play a prominent enough role in Jasmine’s scent (well not enough to be included in their synthetic counterpart) it is its high fat content that makes Jasmine more reminiscent of the oils found on human skin. All along the outer epidermis our bodies, we’re covered in tiny hair follicles, each containing sebum. Sebum is a waxy oil deposit that coats the root tip of each follicle, and comes from the sebaceous glands. The highest concentration of sebum is found in the face and scalp, and just like that, we can link the smell of unwashed hair faintly with the smell of Jasmine.  Where Tuberose is carnal, Jasmine is a beautifully personified extension of us.

The presence of indoles signify  death thanks to  its mothball like smell, which is present in decaying matter. Funnily, indoles also happen to provide lift for any scent that can’t quite find its wings. Have you ever wondered why lilies are always associated with death and funerals? Simply put,  lilies have high indole levels, and so their scent not only blends with the smell of corpses, but they also sweeten the air around it. Seemingly it is easier to battle the smell of one with the scent of another so closely aligned to it. Lilies also contain eugenols, which give off an aromatic spicy scent also present in Carnations, Ylang-Ylang and Cloves (flower from the plant, also known as Eugenia Caryophyllus).

In many cultures tuberose, gardenia and jasmine are also used at funerals, with tuberose (native to Central America) was called ‘Omixochitl” by Aztecs, meaning ‘bone’ due to its waxy petals and long tubular stems.  Flowers that lack lactones and that have a high concentration of indoles act in quite the reverse to our dear toxic lovers Tuberose and Jasmine. Flowers like Lily of the Valley, Neroli (Orange blossom) and Chestnut blossoms are all remarkably sexless by comparison. Their absence of lactones leaves them like small spring cherubs, sweet, fresh and devastatingly innocent. Extremely popular with brides, Lily of the Valley (a combination of indoles and nitrogen) are said to be the frozen tears of the Virgin Mary upon the crucifixion of Christ- what could be more appropriate on a bride than the tears or the world’s most reputed virgin? Perhaps it’s their something borrowed… Reversely, their lack of lactones also places them in a more masculine role. As lactones render them sensual a.k.a feminine, to many their lack of them makes them masculine. Still, they smell crushingly sweet, so I like to just think of them as the tom-boys of the white floral chorus line.

So there you have it! A few reasons why white flowers are more romantic than you might have thought (be it the voluptuous tuberose or the purity of Lily of the Valley).  To summarise, they represent a two-fold relationship to human life, our own physicality and our mortality. It is at the very cusp between the two that, as clichéd as it sounds, makes their scent so much more intense, and thus more romantic.